Clearing Things Up: Plain Writing Act Guidelines

Did you know that certain federal agencies are required to comply with the Plain Writing Act?

Complying with these guidelines when producing content helps the public better understand and use the information agencies publish on their websites and in print publications.

The Plain Writing Act outlines how agencies can produce communications that are clear and free from the dreaded “government speak” that can be intimidating to those outside of civil service.

There are no writing enforcement officers who monitor your every written document or website update, but you have readers from around the world counting on you to produce content in plain language, and in the formats they can use.

I wrote last week on the importance of writing to meet your reader’s needs. This is the perhaps the most important aspect of applying plain language principles. You need to understand what your audience is expecting from you to tailor appropriate and relevant content.

Let’s look at a few more Plain Writing Act guidelines to consider as you produce your agency’s content:

Organize your information  

  • Write for different readers. When developing your content, know that different readers expect to see the information they want in different places. For example, a division head may only read an executive summary (so make sure it contains the desired information), while a general reader may focus only on a reference list to learn more about the topic.
  • Put the most important information first. Readers expect to get the gist of a topic right away. Help them out by using what’s called an inverted pyramid writing style, where you place the most important content first to capture the reader’s attention. This style is found in journalistic writing and seeks to answer the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” at the beginning.
  • Emphasize important points. Using visual cues like bold font, headers, paragraphs, and bullets and lists helps improve your document’s readability and your reader’s understanding.

Be concise

Wordy writing leads to long sentences that can slow your reader down and take away from your message. Look at your writing to see if you’re using two, three and even four words when just one will do. Your goal is to communicate the message as simply as possible.

Look at these examples:

Too Wordy Just Right
At this particular point in time Now
Made mention of the fact Mentioned
Take into consideration Consider
First and foremost First

Keep it conversational

Whenever possible, use active voice, which offers more clarity of who is doing what. This style not only provides more transparency, but helps keep your writing concise.

Which example do you prefer?

  • Consideration was given to this matter by our executive director. (Passive)
  • Our executive director considered this matter. (Active)

Follow web standards

If you’re not familiar with Section 508 of the American with Disabilities Act, you should be.

Section 508 includes guidelines all federal agencies must follow to ensure their information and services are available to people with disabilities.

The Section 508 website offers guidance for making a variety of products accessible to all, including, documents, PDFs, software, presentations and video and audio content.

Looking ahead

If you’re already using plain language principles, great! Encourage and teach others to do the same. A good way is to make sure your in-house style guides adhere to the plain language guidelines. Remember your goal: to communicate your agency’s important messages in a way that readers understand. Ask yourself why people are coming to your sites. What are they looking for and why? Why and where are they reading your publications? Considering these points before you get started will help you develop information that adds value to your readers, and makes your agency look good, too.

Jennifer Singleton is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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